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Professional News
Festival Toasts Hopeful Future For Those With Mental Illness
Psychiatric News
Volume 40 Number 11 page 13-13

As Napa Valley vineyards prepare for the grape harvest each fall, anticipation fills the air. At the Staglin Family Vineyard, hopes extend beyond the success of the season's wines to the day when mental illness has a cure.

Since 1995, when the winery co-owners, Garen and Shari Staglin, launched the first Music Festival for Mental Health, they have helped raise more than $26 million for research on serious mental illness.

The daylong festival takes place on the grounds of the Staglin's Napa Valley vineyard in Rutherford, Calif., each September and attracts renowned chefs, musicians, and scientists.

"We created the music festival to make a day of celebration, as well as awareness and fundraising, so that we can fund research that will help us to identify the causes and eventually the cures for mental illness," Garen Staglin told Psychiatric News.

The event begins with a scientific lecture, which is free and open to the public, and is held in a large, white tent perched atop a hill above the Napa Valley. Past speakers have included Nobel Prize—winner Eric Kandel, M.D., and National Institute of Mental Health Director Thomas Insel, M.D.

Guests must purchase tickets to attend the reception and wine tasting, held in 24,000 square feet of caves that house the Staglin winery and feature wines donated from a number of Napa wineries—as well as the concert and multicourse dinner that follow.

Proceeds from tickets and donations fund research on serious mental illness through a number of academic research centers the Staglins have established.

These include the Center for the Assessment and Prevention of Prodromal States at UCLA and the International Prodromal Research Network, which sponsors studies on the prevention of schizophrenia.

Festival money has also funded psychiatric research programs at the University of California, San Francisco, and Southwest Medical Center in Dallas, the Staglins noted.

In addition, this year the Staglins are launching an annual $250,000 award for a promising young schizophrenia researcher through the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression.

The 2005 award recipient is Linda Brzustowicz, M.D., an associate professor of genetics at Rutgers University, who will use the funding to further her work on identifying genes involved in schizophrenia.

Garen Staglin described a "circle of hope" in which the public is educated about mental illness and becomes willing to donate money, which produces additional research findings that are published, which in turn educates members of the public, who are inspired and donate additional money.

"The music festival is at the center of the circle of hope," he said. "It creates an environment where all this is possible."

According to Sam Barondes, M.D., director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and organizer of the festival's scientific lectures, the Staglins are" passionate" mental health advocates who have raised awareness about mental illness locally and nationally.

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There was a time, more than a decade ago—before the music festival, scientific lectures, and frenzied fundraising—when the Staglins lived unaware of the devastating impact of mental illness.

In 1985 Garen Staglin, a successful venture capitalist and the son of Italian immigrants, purchased a 62-acre plot of land that included a 50-acre vineyard. Together, he and his wife, Shari, replanted the vineyard and began to produce what would become much-praised wines, including chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, and sangiovese wines.

During a trip to Paris in 1990 with their daughter, Shannon, the Staglins learned that their son, Brandon, who had just finished his freshman year at Dartmouth College and was home for the summer, had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

Brandon, now 33, described the days leading up to his hospitalization." Half my identity disappeared," he told Psychiatric News. Although the experience was not easy to articulate, he said, "it was like the emotions, attitudes, and sensations that I would normally experience on the right side of my body were gone."

For the next several days, he wandered the streets of Lafayette, where his family lived, and avoided sleep for fear that he would lose the other half of his identity. "When I finally closed my eyes for a few seconds, the other half of my identity was gone," he said.

Brandon was soon diagnosed with schizophrenia.

"We were in shock," Shari said. "We didn't really know anything about mental illness other than what I had learned in my college psychology class, which is that your mother is pretty much responsible for it. So both of us, who are very dedicated parents, wracked our brains for a while, wondering what we did wrong."

What they needed more than anything, Shari said, was education, "or some kind of understanding that there are biological underpinnings to the disease so we could feel good about ourselves, and so we could feel good about helping him."

It took months for treatment to work, according to Brandon. Early attempts at treatment with various medications "made me feel like there were thunder and lightning in my head" and, later, "like my soul was leaking out of my body through the top of my head and soles of my feet."

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During this time, Shari recalled that her son "wasn't there, and we needed to get him back." It was during this time that she realized" it was better for me not to be emotional. There was only so much I could do, so I just learned to take things as they came and be rational."

Once Brandon began responding more favorably to a newer medication, he resumed his studies. Though he wished to return to Dartmouth when classes began in the fall of 1991, he was subject to a policy that required him to take at least a year off and return with either a letter of recommendation from an employer or one from a professor at another university. He returned with both letters.

"I wasn't going to let anything stand in the way of my goals," Brandon said, and in 1993 he graduated from Dartmouth with honors.

After fulfilling his dream of working as an astronomical engineer, Brandon began voluntarily reducing one of his medications because he felt emotionally flat. "By the time I began experiencing pleasant emotions again, I had my second psychotic episode," he said.

As he and his doctors worked to find the right combination of medications, his condition abruptly became a lot worse. "I was wondering whether I was ever going to get through this," Brandon said.

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At one point, he added, "I had to command myself not to jump in front of cars, and I avoided rooftops because I was afraid I'd jump."

The Staglins were steadfast in their emotional support. Said Shari," When he told us he felt life was so hard he didn't want to go on, we said, `You're going to get better. We're going to work with you until we get it right.'"

Today, Brandon said, "I am on my way to recovery again." Along the way, he has gained some valuable insights, he said.

"A lot of the rigidity and tenacity I developed early in life that enabled me to achieve my dreams has detracted a bit from my happiness and from just being human," he noted. "I've just realized that being human is probably more important to me now."

The 2005 Music Festival for Mental Health will be held September 10. Daniel Weinberger, M.D., director of the Genes, Cognition, and Psychosis Program of the National Institute of Mental Health Intramural Research Program, will present the scientific lecture. Tickets to the reception, concert, and dinner are $2,500, and tickets to the reception and concert are $300. Tickets can be purchased online at<www.staglin.com/events.html>.

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